Just last week, we were reading about an outrageous sin, the fashioning of a golden calf by Aaron the Priest, Moses’ brother. He did this at the behest of the nervous Israelites, whose anxiety was pushed beyond their tolerance limit by Moses’ long stay on Mount Sinai. The story of that manic insistence upon a molten image of the divine had interrupted the description of the construction of the mishkan, the portable worship site that the Levites carried wherever the people traveled, just at the point that instructions had been given for its construction and interior design. We might be grateful, after two weeks reading through detailed instructions, for some real action, but we had anticipated reading about their implementation, too.
This week, the story of the mishkan is suddenly resumed. We hear about the carrying out of all the instructions for its construction and the provision of its furnishings. (This, too, will take two weeks.) What happened in the interim that enabled our narrator to resume his story? Why wasn’t the entire mishkan project abandoned when the fickle nature of the Israelites’ faith was revealed?
An ancient tradition teaches that after the sin of the Golden Calf, God forgave the people, and this took place on Yom Kippur. Rashi tells us, citing a work of rabbinic chronology, that when Moses orders convocation of the entire Israelite community in the first verse of our portion, it is the very next day — i.e., the events took place the day after Yom Kippur. Why does Rashi bother to cite that date?
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz (1550-1619), in his Olelot Ephraim, suggests an answer. “It is usually the case,” he writes, “that on Yom Kippur all the Jews are [God-] fearing and good. On Yom Kippur each Jew settles disputes with his fellow, and everyone is suffused with peace, love, and unity. But,” Lunshitz continues with a weary realism, “all this does not last and is not sustained past the evening after that day. Therefore [the Torah tells us, with Rashi’s gloss:] ‘And Moses assembled [the whole Israelite community] — on the day after Yom Kippur.’ He demanded of them that not only on Yom Kippur should they be gathered together and united, but that [it continue] on the next day as well, and thereafter.”
Lunshitz’s comment focuses on the word vayak-hel, “assembled,” whose root, k.h.l., provides us with the noun kehillah, “community,” with its overtones of small-town familiarity and harmony. The verse contributes to this impression by stressing that it is not just some individuals who are gathered, but “the whole Israelite community.” Speaking as the conscience of his community, Lunshitz pleads with them — and us — to take the fleeting moments of forgiveness and reconciliation and make of them something more permanent.
In another of his works, the Torah commentary Kli Yakar, Lunshitz suggests another interpretation of our verse. He begins by noting that Rashi makes an identical comment earlier in the Torah, following the arrival of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, who brought Moses’ family to him in the wilderness. Exodus 18:13 begins, “And it happened on the following day that Moses sat in judgment over the people,” and continues with a depiction of Moses adjudicating every dispute among the people. Lunshitz notes that Rashi, again citing ancient midrash, explains “on the following day” as “on the day after Yom Kippur.”
Assuming that chapters 18 and 35 both take place in the first, fateful year after liberation from Egypt, Lunshitz sketches out the implications of the stories’ timing:
“The two things, the adjudication of disputes between one individual and another and the accepting of contributions toward the construction of the mishkan, were done on the same day. In doing so, Moses sought to ensure that in the gold and silver intended for the construction of the mishkan there be not the slightest bit of robbery, that no one should contribute anything that wasn’t his own. Therefore he first announced, ‘Whoever has a case for judgment, let him approach me.’ First, the claims of one person against another were to be brought to him, and only afterward, once he had made his decisions and taken from one person what belonged to another — only then, and on the very same day, while the money was still in their possession — did he begin to collect the contributions for the construction of the mishkan.”
Fund raisers, take note: Moses, who was our second (after Aaron) and most successful fund raiser, insisted on knowing that his big givers had made their money in ways that brought honor upon them and upon the institutions to which they gave.
Peretz Rodman, a Jerusalem-based translator and editor, teaches at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is president of the Israel Region of the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of Masorti/Conservative rabbis.